For the online marketer, an ability to write well is indispensable. Even if you specialize in creating audio or visual content, at some point you must connect with your prospects, leads and customers through the written word.
In my opinion, relatively few pieces of advice are categorically suitable for every type of writing. However, if you struggle to produce top quality, written content, then the five tips below remain timeless pearls of wisdom that place you on a much better path towards the success you deserve.
1. Use the Active Voice
Often cited as one of the most common signs of poor writing is excessive use of the passive voice.
Compare the following pairs of instances:
“The ball was kicked by Tom.” (passive)
“Tom kicked the ball.” (active)
“Noises were heard.” (passive)
“We heard noises.” (active)
“The stick was grabbed by the dog.” (passive)
“The dog grabbed the stick.” (active)
The active voice, as you can see, places the actor/agent as the subject of the sentence, focussing the weight of the phrase on the same. Such syntax induces greater empathy in the mind of the reader, providing a more direct connection with the action itself.
This is especially important if you are enticing the reader to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes – often a critical technique in sales copy.
This doesn’t mean to say that the passive voice is never useful. You may, for instance, have good reasons for minimizing an agent’s role, such as in explaining a scientific procedure. Or the particular agent may be less important to the story than the person on the receiving end of the action, in which case the passive voice will retain focus on the latter.
Another example is if you need to avoid apportioning blame for an action. Official reports of accidents, for instance, will often deploy phrases such as “ten people were injured” or “two cars were involved.” Such choices avoid insinuating precisely who was responsible.
In fact, if you ever need to write a grovelling apology for something bad you’ve done, then try explaining yourself in the passive voice. You may well help to minimize the reader’s perception of your culpability!
2. Avoid Adverbs
Stephen King once said “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”. I happen to agree him.
Adverbs, in case you don’t know, modify a verb or verbal phrase. For example:
“John shouted loudly.”
“Jenny waited patiently.”
“Ben walked quickly.”
Intuitively, we would expect the imaginative use of adverbs to be impressive. After all, isn’t rich embellishment of the English language the key to creating a verbal picture?
Unfortunately, the actual effect of an adverb is to suck all of the power from the verb itself, deflating the impact of your writing.
Consider the following pairs of examples:
“Bob shut the door violently.”
“Bob slammed the door.”
“Sally threw the ball vigorously.”
“Sally tossed the ball.”
“Richard picked up his things carefully.”
“Richard gathered his things.”
In each case, the second phrase has far more incision than the first.
Moreover, depriving yourself of adverbs leads to a more inventive choice of verb. From the above examples, we can see that “slammed” is better than “shut”, “tossed” better than “threw”, while “gathered” is preferable to “picked up”.
In case you are wondering, this rule doesn’t apply to adjectives, but at the same time you shouldn’t be too liberal. Excessively ornamental language just sounds pretentious, especially if you are describing things which the reader will know are quite mundane.
3. Use Appropriate Sentence Lengths
Much writing advice suggests you should use shorter sentences, avoiding multiple strings of clauses.
While often true, I doubt that such an imperative qualifies as a general rule. More important is to select a sentence structure that is sensitive to your particular target audience.
If, for instance, you are writing for a young or general audience, then yes, shorter sentences are likely to be appropriate – twenty words or fewer is usually recommended.
However, for an intelligent or highly educated audience, longer sentences shouldn’t be precluded. In fact, too much “stop and start” can often destroy the flow, especially if you are conveying a complex string of thoughts and ideas.
For whomever you are writing, the rule of thumb is this: in order to communicate your thoughts, no one should have to read a given passage more than once.
If using longer sentences, this means structuring ideas into as logical or linear a sequence as possible, with each concept gliding to the next. In this regard, try to avoid using more than one negative (“not”, “don’t”, “won’t”, “can’t”, “nothing”, etc.) in the same sentence.
Take care also over the length of paragraphs. Excessive blocks of text can be visually unappealing, especially on the screen.
4. Be Direct
If you have problems with reducing your sentence length, then you may find the reason is fairly simple: you are using too many words!
Full disclosure: this is a major weakness of my writing, and I nearly always have to revise my first drafts in order to de-consolidate my excessive verbiage.
“If you are able to exercise for at least one hour per day, then you may well find that the likely outcome is a possible improvement to your overall health and fitness.”
Much better is this:
“Should you exercise daily for an hour, your overall health and fitness will likely improve”.
In short, do not use three words if one will suffice.
5. Tell a Story (Get a Hook)
Our final tip is most suitable for the opening of long articles or whole book chapters where we have to sustain the reader’s attention.
Think about some of your favorite books or articles. Now ask yourself why you kept on reading beyond the first few pages. You might well find that the author adopted a simple trick: they started the narrative not at the beginning of the chronology, but somewhere in the middle.
For example, if I had to write an article detailing a major heist, I wouldn’t start by outlining all of the tedious details of the robbers’ planning and preparation. Instead, I will start with the robbery itself – the action, the excitement, the adrenaline.
Doing this would galvanize my readers’ interest in the characters so that they want to learn more about who these robbers are, where they have come from, and why they behave the way they do. Only after this would I move onto to detailing the background behind the whole event, together with my analysis and explanation.
As an online marketer looking to impart advice or sell products, your equivalent of this is to seed your subject matter in a real life context before you explain the nuts and bolts. In other words, start with an anecdote that will incite your readers’ curiosity.
Ideally, the anecdote should serve as a broad illustration of your subject matter, but you should suspend revelation of the explicit connection until the end. This maximizes anticipation before you cross the bridge to talking about your subject directly.
In fact, it is often better for the anecdote to seem, at first, utterly irrelevant – i.e. something from a different time and place. Remember that many important lessons we are teaching have been true for all of time. It is only the precise setting that has changed.
For instance, attracting traffic online is little more than the Internet’s version of advertising. The precise techniques are different – thirty years ago no one had heard of SEO or social media – but the basic principles are identical.
So let’s say you are writing a chapter in an eBook about driving traffic. Why not start with a story about a struggling bricks and mortar business from yesteryear? What did they do to improve their footfall? What are the principles behind their success in turning their business around?
Of course, it helps if the story is true, but it needn’t be so – you can make up something fictional so long as the illustration of your point is plausible.
However, you would achieve maximum effect if you could reveal at the end that the struggling ‘Mom and Pop’ store is now a major global brand.
Better still, in my view, would be to find something that isn’t even a business at all. Don’t forget that “advertising”, more broadly, is hardly unique to the business world. So why not focus on an inspiring social or political movement from history whose ideas, at first, struggled to gain traction? What did they do? What can their example show us about attracting attention in the modern world?
BONUS TIP: Connect Random Topics
A somewhat refined version of Tip 5 is this brilliant technique which I guarantee will multiply the chances of your readers fulfilling your desired call to action.
Very often you know that your product or service is suitable for a particular lead or prospect. But you also know that going in cold with a sales pitch will not work. So how do you attract their attention?
The answer is to find another topic that definitely would attract enough of their attention to get them reading your material.
This topic could be anything: football; the weather; local events; what’s on TV. As long as you know your customer, you should know what to write about. Ideally, however, the topic should be something with which the reader has a distinctly emotional connection.
Now for the clever bit: having grabbed your reader’s attention, you then find some way of connecting this seemingly random topic to your product or service. In doing this, you foster a mental association between the latter and something for which the reader has a great deal of care.
Can you see how powerful this could be? If you get this right, then no longer will you struggle for clicks on that “Order” or “Subscribe” button – you won’t be able to stop them!
What’s more, the connection between topics needn’t be anything major – even the vaguest of themes will suffice.
For example, let’s say that you wish to promote an eBook that deals with business psychology – an important aspect of which is remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.
Let’s say also that you know your prospects to be passionate about football – or, at least, you know they are much more likely to open an email or blog post about football than about something to do with business psychology.
So why not begin your pitch with a focus on the trials and tribulations of your state or national football team? Your opening paragraphs will then explain the mindsets and mental determination the team must maintain to recover from crushing defeat to resounding success.
Better still is if you can time this with either a humiliating loss or an astonishing victory that is still fresh in the newspaper.
From there, you have only a small segue to explaining the importance of the same kind of mindset in the business world – which your eBook just happens to explain in detail!
Aren’t you now much more likely to win the sale?
Don’t lose heart if you struggle to find any topic that most of your audience is likely to have in common. Just try this equally powerful variation: find a weird or unusual story that will incite a click through to your article or email out of sheer curiosity. Then link this peculiar story to your product.
However, you need to exercise caution here: do not descend into producing obvious clickbait.
How can you practice this skill? Place a bunch of topics into a hat, select one at random, then try writing about it in a way that connects with something you offer. I can assure you that you will be very surprised at how quickly you can find ingenious ways of doing this once you start.
However, to become a true master at this invaluable technique, try to accomplish it within as little as five short paragraphs – in other words, about the same length as an email update. In fact, if you are especially skilled, you may be able to recite a interesting story followed by just a single line pitch.
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